|16 STARS IN A RARE AND BEAUTIFUL STARBURST MEDALLION THAT FEATURES A DISTINCT SALTIRE; A HOMEMADE AND ENTIRELY HAND-SEWN, ANTIQUE AMERICAN FLAG, MADE WITH AN ABOLITIONIST MESSAGE BY REMOVING THE SLAVE STATES FROM THE STAR COUNT, circa 1850-1858, YET WITH A COMBINATION OF TRAITS AND FEATURES THAT CURIOUSLY REFLECT TENNESSEE AS THE 16TH STATE TO JOIN THE UNION AND THE 11TH STATE TO LEAVE
|Frame Size (H x L):
|31.25" x 42.25"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|17.5" x 28"
|American national flag variant bearing 16 stars and a shortened complement of 11 stripes, made during the mid-19th century. Homemade and entirely hand-sewn, the canton, stripes, and stars of the flag are all made of plain weave cotton. The stars are arranged in a very rare and dynamic configuration that places it among a group that I have termed “starburst medallions.” The common theme in these beautifully graphic flags is that their stars seem to explode from the center, like a firework.
This particular design is especially interesting for two reasons. One is the rather obvious inclusion of a saltire. If made between late 1861 and the latter part of the 19th century, this might illustrate the maker’s solidarity with the South, immersing the Southern Cross within the configuration. I believe, however, that this flag was almost certainly made pre-war, between 1850 and 1858, not to glorify the South, but to exclude it, removing the Slave States from the star count.
Another interesting feature is that the pattern is intentionally incomplete, with the noted absence of a star in the upper, fly-end corner. If the stars of the flag were neatly aligned in rows and columns rows, with individual spaces left blank along the perimeter, this is what I would call a “notched” design, leaving space for an additional star or stars that had yet to be added. Here, with this unusual pattern, the intent of the maker may have been the same.
Tennessee became the 16th state on June 1st, 1796. It is of interest to note that while there were 16 states for a period of roughly 8 years, the 16-star count was never official. The number of stars had been officially increased from 13 to 15 in 1795, by way of the Second Flag Act, which added stars for Vermont and Kentucky and likewise increased the stripe count to the same number. The two states had entered in 1791 and 1792, respectively.
It would be 23 more years before the flag would receive another official update from Congress. In 1818, by way of the Third Flag Act, the star count was increased to 20, to reflect the 5 additional states that had joined the Union by that time, and the stripe count was returned to 13, with the notion that they might soon transform into pinstripes with continued Westward Expansion.
Despite not having been an official star count, flags were produced in the 1796-1803 era, as evidenced by surviving illustrations and at least one actual flag. Among the holdings of the Stonington Historical Society, in Stonington, Connecticut, the “Stonington flag” is the only, surviving, 1796-1803 example presently known to exist, with the proper compliment of 16 stripes.
Other flags with 16 stars were sometimes made outside the 1796-1803 period. These typically display 13 stripes for various reasons. One reason, if made for commemorative purposes, the number of stripes on a 16 star flag, produced to reflect the 1796-1803 period, should have theoretically been 16. Later flag-makers, however, were probably unaware that, prior to 1818, the logic was to add a stripe with every star. So a post-1803 16 star flag, made to reflect that period of American history, can probably be expected to have 13 stripes, not 16.
One very different use of 16-star, 13-stripe flags, during the mid-19th century, was aboard U.S. Navy ships, where they were flown as small boat ensigns. One reason that the lower count was utilized was that it was easier to discern the stars as individual objects on a smaller flag, at a distance, if there were fewer of them. 13 stars was often the number employed on U.S. Navy small boat ensigns, as they were called, a practice that endured until 1916, when an Executive Order of President Woodrow Wilson put an end to the tradition. But in the mid-19th century, some 16 star examples were used. Because there were 16 Free States in the period between 1850 and 1858, and because the U.S. Navy spent much of its time during this era chasing slave traders, it has been theorized that flags in this star count likely removed the Slave States. Evidence of this survives both in actual flags of that era, in the 16 star count, as well as newspaper articles, primarily in the South, where there were reports of Northern ships displaying 16 star flags.
One rare broadside, made for the 1856 presidential campaign, displays a prominent 16 star flag, flanked by the words “All North” and “No South.” I have encountered fewer than 10 of these U.S. Navy examples, all of which share the same basic 4 x 4 justified lineal configuration of stars, all made of wool bunting, as expected for use at sea. The flag in question here isn’t seaworthy by way of either its materials, or method of construction, and is not in any way typical of flags made by the U.S. Navy (the Navy often made its own flags), or employed in its service.
Another explanation for the use of 16 stars, in a flag made during the second half of the 19th century or after, would be to commemorate Tennessee’s addition as the 16th state. On this particular example, the incomplete star configuration provides a significant clue as to why this is highly unlikely. A 16 star flag, made during the mid-19th century to reflect Tennessee statehood, would be unlikely to have a design that intentionally encouraged the addition of another star. A flag that encouraged the addition of another Free State, however, widening the margin from 16 Free States vs. 15 Slave States, to 17 vs. 15, was just the kind of message that a flag of this era might convey.
While rare in any period, another 16 star example is known that displays the same odd star configuration. Flipped horizontally, in mirror image, made of different cotton fabrics, and with a different count of stripes, the flag dates to the same general era.* I am unaware of the pattern to exist outside these two flags, and, for what it is worth, this type of design would not be typical of other flags made in the 1896-1903 era. It doesn’t remind me of others of that era, or related illustrations of the flags of that period. I have had the great privilege to own almost all of the identified starburst medallions known to exist, all of which date between roughly the Mexican War (1846-48) and the 1876 centennial of American independence.
The reason for making 16 star flags during the 1850’s was certainly logical, perhaps even expected. In addition to the feelings spurred by slavery and states' rights in a more generalized sense, certain congressional legislation and actions of the federal government, during this specific period, stirred the emotions of the nation. One was the addition of three states where slavery was not allowed, including California, Minnesota, and Oregon. This upset the balance in Congress in favor of Free States. Also of direct impact were details within the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act (also 1850), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the Dred Scott decision (1857), all of which caused more ill will and anger than at almost any other point in American history. The most infamous physical brawl that took place on the floor of the U.S. Congress, occurred in 1858, over the proposed constitution for the Kansas Territory, that would have legalized slavery.
The Republican party formed in 1854, in response to the related issues, running its first Presidential candidate in 1856, on the anti-slavery ticket. During this general era, while tempers flared, there were many hidden messages in early flags. This continued throughout the war itself, as well as after. In the south, some people were loath to just abandon the Stars & Stripes, which had been their flag too, of course. Others probably sought to display subtle messages, by hanging flags with 11 stripes instead of 13, for example, to mark a place where Southern sympathies might be found, in the face of occupying Union soldiers or officials. It has been suggested, for example, that flags of this nature sometimes marked places where secret meetings were held, or some sort of aid was available to supporters of whatever cause was being conveyed.
A stripe count of 11 normally sends a distinctly Confederate message. This conveys the total number of states that seceded from the Union in an official manner, with a vote of the respective state legislatures, followed by some sort of ratification, when necessary. Sometimes this required an additional, popular vote of the people. This particular flag happens to have that count, but the reason is circumstantial. The manner by which the last stripe is finished, accompanied by the nature of the extension of the last 6 stripes, near the fly end, is evidence of a repair that required removal of the 12th and 13th stripes.
What’s really interesting is that the resulting 11 stripes, in combination with 16 stars that include what appears to be a Southern Cross, is probably not a Southern flag at all. In spite of not actually being related to Tennessee, these counts just so happen to reflect Tennessee’s addition to the Union as the 16th state, in 1796, and its subtraction, between May and June of 1861, as the 11th state to leave.** Because so few 16 star flags exist, they are usually loved by people with a connection to Tennessee, regardless of the original intent of the political message. Here, the fact that both the star and stripe counts of this particular flag point to Tennessee, makes it even more interesting with respect to the tumultuous history of this pivotal and interesting state.
Note the wonderful, cornflower blue color of the canton. Just as there was no official star configuration until 1912, there were likewise no official shades of red and blue. In addition to its many other assets, one of the best characteristics of this flag is its tiny scale among its pieced-and-sewn counterparts. Prior to 1890, most flags with sewn construction were 8 feet long and larger. The smaller they get, the more unusual they are. Because smaller flags are not only more rare, but easier to frame and display in an indoor setting, they are generally far more sought after by advanced collectors. This is especially true of flags with strong folk attributes, like this one. The combination of all of the above facts leads to an exceptional example. Among known 16 star flags of the mid-19th century, this is arguably the very best that exists.
Construction: Made of plain weave cotton throughout, the stripes and canton of the flag are joined by hand-stitching, with flat fell seams. The top stripe of the flag has been finished with a neat hem. The last stripe was trimmed to scale and left unhemmed along the lower edge, then bound with a carefully applied whip stitch, to lend support and in hopes to deter fraying. The stars, clipped and left raw about the edges, were double-appliquéd (applied to both sides) by hand-stitching. The hoist end was rolled over a length of braided cotton cord and hand-stitched into position, with knotted loops at the top and bottom. These would have been used to affix the flag to a wooden staff.
The stitching in the stars is of a different quality level than in the joining of the stripes and the canton. Most likely this was sewn by a mother and child, or perhaps multiple children, who did not possess the skills of the parent. Appliqué work is generally far more difficult than piecework, so the disparity present here is both readily understandable and something I encounter quite frequently with homemade flags. Children seem to have universally wished or been instructed to sew the stars.
* Misdated in some sources.
** Although the Tennessee legislature voted for secession on May 6th, 1861 (the same as Arkansas, but later in the day), and North Carolina’s legislature voted in favor on May 20th, there was no ratification needed in NC. The state was accepted by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress on the very same day. This was untrue of TN, where a popular vote of the people followed on June 8th. Tennessee secession didn’t become effective until that day, when it became the 11th and last to do so in a formal, legislative manner, and the state wasn’t officially accepted into the Confederacy until almost a month later, on July 2nd. The most significant reason for the state’s hesitation is the fact that TN claims the greatest number of borders of any other state, with the exception of Missouri, with which it is tied.
Mounting: The flag was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.
The black-painted portrait frame is American, dates to the 1st half of the 19th century, and retains a crude, early, varnished surface. The flag was hand-stitched to a supportive fabric first, throughout, then hand-stitched to a background of 100% cotton twill, black in color, that was washed and treated for colorfastness. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas). Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: The flag was definitely flow for a significant period. There is a significant hole in the top stripe and significant loss at the fly end of the last stripe, accompanied by much smaller losses in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 9th stripes. A vertical tear near the hoist end, in the last stripe, was wound around the rope hoist and stitched as a means of support. There appear to be some stitched repairs in some of the stars, particularly in the top, hoist-end quadrant. There is minor soiling within the white cotton fabric, accompanied by modest stains in limited areas. As noted above, the bottom 6 stripes, adjacent to the fly end, have been repaired with fabric original to the flag, that appears to have been obtained by removing the 12th and 13th stripes. This actually brought the flag into more typical proportions than it would have previously possessed. Where raw edges were present, such as at the ends of the 3rd, 4th, and last red stripes, and along the lower edge of the last red stripe, a delicate whip stitch was employed to help keep the fabric from fraying. Many of my clients prefer early flags to show their age and history of use.
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